By Trish Thompson on
Trish Thompson, an American Dharma teacher living in Việt Nam, shares her deeply personal experience of interbeing during Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh’s casket and cremation ceremonies.
Being in Huế to practice with the Sangha during the days following Thầy’s passing was a precious gift, one that seemed to fulfill Thầy’s vision for my life as a Western Dharma teacher in Việt Nam. At my Lamp Transmission ceremony in 2011, Thầy called me by my Vietnamese Dharma name, An Định. He had recognized my love for Việt Nam. Acknowledging my dedication to Sangha building and to building a bridge between East and West, he suggested I should “move to Central Việt Nam and develop fellowship there. After that, you can go back to Hà Nội and help rebuild that Sangha.” With a small smile, he added, “Then, you can go to Sài Gòn and help build Sangha there.” Those present, including me, laughed at the scope of his vision for one person, but I had also heard his confidence in me. He concluded by saying, “You can be our ‘ambassador.’”
My teacher understood me.
For seventeen years, our teacher’s homeland has been my adopted home. During the 2005 Joyfully Together retreat in Việt Nam with Thầy and the Sangha, I saw love in the eyes of the people. I knew this was where I wanted to be, where I was meant to be. In all these years, I have never forgotten, no matter where I am or in what circumstance, that I am Thầy’s disciple, and I am his “ambassador.” The love I first experienced all those years ago continues to nourish me. I belong in Việt Nam. That sense of belonging has never been stronger than during the days after Thầy’s passing.
In keeping with my morning practice, I rose early on Saturday, 22 January. At 4:47 a.m., I checked my text messages, and there it was. Thầy had become a cloud. Feeling the profundity of the final letting go by my spiritual teacher, I dropped to my knees, allowing the feeling to consume me and the tears to flow. After some moments, those intense feelings passed, replaced by deep feelings of reverence and love for Thầy. On my small altar, I placed my favorite photo of him. He is gazing fearlessly into the camera. I looked into his eyes and bowed. After lighting two candles, I sat on my cushion and began to send him all my love and gratitude.
Throughout that first day and the night that followed, as I read the messages of love on the internet and sat in contemplation with Thầy, the aspiration to continue my teacher filled my heart. I noticed my energy level increasing. The thought arose, Thầy has entered every cell of my body. I felt physically stronger, so much so that I didn’t go to bed that night. I felt fresh and strong during the days that followed. The awareness of Thầy being fully alive in me continues to be powerfully energizing.
The next day, the first of the formal ceremonies, I left my house in Đà Nẵng at 4:00 a.m. to meet Sangha members from Hồi An and Đà Nẵng for the ninety-minute drive to Huế. Someone had efficiently arranged for each of us to be given a rapid Covid test right on the sidewalk. After being declared negative and checking that my mask was securely in place, I was invited into one of several waiting cars where I happily discovered my old friend, Từ, the mother of Sister Tạng Nghiêm. After a quiet and uneventful ride, we arrived at our Root Temple, well in advance of the appointed hour for the casket ceremony to begin.
We belong to one another. We inter-are.
I left Sangha friends in the parking lot, and slowly walked up the small hill of Diệu Trạm, our Plum Village nunnery, and continued through the gate to Từ Hiểu, the home of the monks. The day was still quite young, the path deserted. As I walked beneath the tall pines, the soft twittering of birds broke the deep, early morning silence. Love swelled my heart. Thousands had walked this path before me, ground made holy by the reverence of their love, of our love–this place where Thầy began his monastic life. I breathed deeply, welcoming the memories associated with this path. Thầy’s students come from all over the globe to this place where our lineage took root. I had last encountered Thầy at this very spot in 2019. Our last Loving Work retreat groups had followed him with mindful steps, hearts overflowing with love, to the Half-Moon Lotus Pond where we sat to sing. Our teacher’s playfulness, expressed so clearly through his eyes, had caused the entire group to break into laughter.
Now, in the distance, I saw Linh, Chân Cẩm Tú Dung (True Beautiful Acceptance), my dear spiritual daughter, waiting for me. She and other members of the Hà Nội Sangha had come by car, a trip of more than twelve hours. She too had not slept, but nevertheless appeared fresh and energetic.
We joined the silent group of monastic and lay disciples streaming slowly in and out of the building that had been Thầy’s home for the past three years, and where his body now lay. Linh, in her customary way of ensuring I follow protocol, guided me through the crowd, whispering, “Cô Trish” (Auntie Trish), adding for those who didn’t know me, “Thầy’s lay Dharma teacher.” I was keenly aware of the eyes on me. As always, those eyes support me to breathe and to walk slowly and mindfully. I am keenly aware that they, too, are supported by my presence. We belong to one another. We inter-are.
Thầy’s body lay on a narrow bed, covered with the familiar simple brown robe. I stared. Thầy, my teacher. He and I, his disciple, had recognized each other so many years ago. After perhaps countless lifetimes, we had found each other. Now, here I was, standing, staring at a dead body. I knew he was not in it, and I knew his body to be precious. It had served him well, allowing him to stay with us for so many years. Feelings of deep love and the sacredness of the moment almost overwhelmed me. I took a deep breath. In contrast with my confusion and bewilderment when my mother passed—the painful event that had set me on the path—I didn’t feel left behind by Thầy. I felt his presence in me and around me.
At the sound of a small bell, I prostrated three times. I felt calm and peaceful, aware of immeasurable gratitude for the conditions that allowed me to understand deeply that our beloved teacher was not his body. Turning to leave, I saw Sister Chân Không sitting to one side. My heart filled with love for this woman, also my teacher and guiding star, who has given her whole life in service to others. I can never forget her love and compassion that lifted me out of despair many years ago, nor can I ever adequately express my gratitude. We made eye contact, and I bowed. I placed my hands over my heart, feeling an urge to hug her, but of course I did not. I tried, instead, to convey all my love and care through my eyes. She felt it and managed a small smile. I heard her murmur, “Trish, always so faithful.”
The memory of the casket ceremony is forever etched in my heart. Standing just feet from the procession bearing his body, I experienced a sudden sharp in-breath at the sight of the top of Thầy’s head. Around me, the volume of the chanting of Quán Thế Âm (Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion), rose as Thầy’s body passed, and every one of us touched the earth. I heard Thầy’s voice—Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in, Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out—as I practiced to control my strong emotions during these moments of seeing, for the last time, our precious teacher in the familiar form of the Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh.
Watching the doors of the crematorium close and the fire begin to burn were equally painful and beautiful moments of letting go. I imagined what was happening inside. The thought arose, This is the process I want for myself. I want my loved ones to have the experience I’m having. This extraordinarily intimate involvement with death is teaching me the truth of no death, only continuation. Thank you, dear Thầy.
Between the formal ceremonies, the Sangha enjoyed a picnic lunch and, later, a picnic supper. I imagined my loved ones eating and enjoying each other’s company while this body that allows me to live and work and play as a mother, friend, student, and teacher, this body that was never me, burns nearby. The thought arose, I want to die in Việt Nam.
After the final ceremony of bringing Thầy’s ashes to Từ Hiểu, I encountered an old friend, one of Thầy’s students from the days of the School of Youth for Social Service. As always, we bowed in silence, our eyes transmitting the warmth of friendship. Linh generously offered to translate for us, but he shook his head. “Words are not necessary,” he said with a gentle smile. “We are Thầy’s students. We speak the language of the heart.”